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The NHL lockout ends — but will fans come back?

After a devastating 113-day lockout, the NHL faces a daunting task in winning back the loyalty of millions of disgruntled fans

After 113 days, hundreds of canceled games, and seemingly immeasurable ill will, the NHL lockout has finally drawn to a close, with players and owners striking a deal on a salary cap and how to split hockey-related revenue. But the real struggle may only have just begun, as the league must now try to woo back fans frustrated by pro hockey's third massive labor dispute in 20 years. "I'm hoping that our fans understand this was something that had to be done for the strength of the league, for the strength of the Players Association," says Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider in an interview at the Associated Press. "I hope they don't hold it against us and just come out and see some great hockey." Despite (and perhaps, in part, because of) the platitudes of league officials and players, NHL fan frustration is at an all-time high. Has the NHL alienated its most ardent fans for good?

Angry fans have been very, very vocal. "These are tough economic times, and we had billionaires fighting millionaires over a game," says Red Wings fan Joe Sasso at USA Today. "Still a fan, but they are not getting a single red cent from me." And this: "To be honest with you, I have learned to live without the sport that I love," says Flyers fan Lisa D'Angelo. One disgruntled fan even organized a grassroots campaign called "Just Drop It," encouraging his fellow fans to skip one NHL game for every game canceled after Dec. 21, reports Dan Gelston at the Associated Press. The "Just Drop It" campaign on Facebook had led to more than 21,000 people pledging not to watch any games or spend any money on NHL merchandise for the first 10 games of the year.

But even if every fan who "liked" the "Just Drop It" campaign makes good on the pledge, it's still a tiny fraction of the record-setting 21.5 million fans who attended games during the 2011-2012 season. The NHL has survived lockouts before, and if history holds true, the lost half-season will be forgiven and forgotten by the league's fans when the players hit the ice. "While fans spend time deciding who they hate more during the tie-up between the owners and the players, the truth is games quickly make fans forget," says Darren Rovell at ESPN.com. "I have always compared hockey fans to Deadheads," agrees Mark Purdy at the San Jose Mercury News. "No matter what, they always show up for the next tour." 

We'll find out soon enough: The shortened season (probably 48 or 50 games instead of the normal 82) commences sometime in the next few weeks.

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